This article was written by James Lincoln Ray
We often read or hear about pitchers developing arm strength and accuracy in their youth by throwing rocks at a target. Hal Gregg’s missile of choice was citrus—specifically an orange. Born in Anaheim, California, on July 11, 1921, Harold Dana Gregg grew up on an orange farm. His parents, Calvin and Margaret Smylmo Gregg, were orange farmers, and had a large grove right behind the family house.
Young Hal had no interest in baseball; he wanted to be like his father. At a very young age, he began working on the farm: planting, picking, watering, and doing every chore his father assigned him. Hal competed with the other workers during breaks to see who could “pick” an orange off a branch by firing another orange at it.
Although he didn’t play baseball in his youth or adolescence, he developed a feeling for the game by watching his older brother. James Gregg was a standout baseball player in high school and eventually played some semipro ball. Hal had another brother, Malcolm, born in 1914, two years after James.
One day James noticed that his little brother could throw as hard and as far as he could. Accordingly, he encouraged Hal to try baseball, but the younger Gregg wanted no part of the game. He wanted to go to work. It was the heart of the Great Depression. Money was tight. Jobs were scarce. So when he was offered a job at a local feed mill loading 160-pound sacks of grain onto trucks, Hal jumped at the opportunity. The decision would affect him for the rest of his life.
Teenagers rarely got such chances to work at what was then considered a good job, but even as a fifteen-year-old Hal was already very big and very strong. (He eventually grew to a height of six feet three and half inches and a weight of 195 pounds.) He used that brawn to load the trucks with those heavy sacks. It was brutally hard work. After a couple of years, the repeated stress of lifting more than thirty tons of grain every day—about 375 sacks—took its toll on young Hal’s back. He tried to work through the pain, but eventually strained his back to the point where he had to give up his career as a sack-thrower.
Although Gregg was already eighteen years old and had never competed in a real baseball game, James encouraged him to sign up for the Dodgers’ baseball school in Long Beach, California. Feeling he had nothing to lose, and knowing he could throw harder than anyone he had ever met, Hal signed up.
While at the school, he impressed Dodgers scout Ted McGrew, who later boasted that he had made up his mind to give Gregg a minor-league chance after seeing the youngster throw only two fastballs. Gregg did not begin his minor-league career until the next spring (1941), when he debuted as a relief pitcher for the Santa Barbara Saints of the Class C California League.
Gregg made only four appearances for the Saints before the Dodgers assigned him to the Olean (New York) Oilers of the Class D PONY League. He was an unimpressive 1-5 for Olean with an earned run average of 4.59. Moreover, the repetition of the pitching movement had again worn down his fragile back. In midseason, Gregg threw a hard fastball and heard something crack. He later found out that he had dislodged a vertebra. The team sent him to the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, where surgeons removed a bone from one of Hal’s ribs and used it as a replacement vertebra for the one he had ruined. The surgery gave Gregg little relief; nevertheless, he forged ahead with his pitching career.
In 1942, the first wartime season, Hal was back playing for Santa Barbara. He was 4-6 with a 3.66 ERA when the league folded at the end of June because too many players had been drafted. Gregg had tried to enlist the day after Pearl Harbor, but his draft board classified him as 4-F because of his back.
In the fall Gregg headed to the hospital again, where he underwent more surgery, this time to fuse his spine. The surgery was successful, and the vertebra problem that had haunted him for so long seemed healed. Pain-free for the first time in years, Gregg pitched for the International League’s Montreal Royals in 1943. In twenty-three games for the Dodgers’ top affiliate, he had a mediocre 11-11 record, but his ERA was just 3.17 and he was becoming known for his blazing fastball. His pitching caught the attention of Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and general manager Branch Rickey. Brooklyn had lost several key veterans to the service and were now struggling to win games and, more importantly, to fill the seats.
In mid-August Durocher decided it was time for a youth movement. He stormed into Rickey’s office and demanded the team call up some young players from the minors. The next day Rickey summoned Gregg and teammate Rex Barney, another young, hard-thrower, from Montreal. When Rickey met the two pitchers upon their arrival in Brooklyn, he told them to relax and get acclimated, and predicted that Durocher wouldn’t want to start either pitcher for a week or so. He was wrong. That afternoon Durocher started both youngsters in a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs.
Gregg pitched the opener and allowed three runs in the first inning. He held the Cubs scoreless in the second, but in the third inning, Dom Dallessandro hit a line drive that smacked Gregg’s right ankle, dropping him to the ground. He remained on the field, unable to rise, for several minutes. He was eventually helped off the field, but was done for the day. Gregg’s pitching line for his first big-league game was two and a third innings-pitched, six walks, four hits, six runs, and two wild pitches. To complete his miserable debut, he was hit by a Claude Passeau pitch in his first major-league plate appearance. The rest of the 1943 season wasn’t much better for Gregg. In five appearances overall, four of them starts, he was 0-3 with a 9.64 ERA. Gregg’s biggest problem was a lack of control. He walked twenty-one in eighteen and two-thirds innings.
Despite his dismal performance in his first few major-league appearances, Gregg showed enough promise at spring training in 1944 to make the Dodgers’ war-depleted roster. He pitched well initially, but once again injured his back during the summer. Fortunately, the doctors were able to fashion a back brace that held his strained spine in place.
Limited by these physical ailments, Gregg again struggled with his control in ’44 and led the National League in walks (137 in 197 2/3 innings), wild pitches (10), and hit batsmen (9). He won only nine games and lost sixteen. His ERA was an uninspiring 5.46. It was far from stellar, but in those times of manpower shortages, it was enough to keep Gregg in the big leagues if he could stay healthy.
In the winter of 1944-45 Gregg pitched semipro ball in California in an effort to rehabilitate his back. When he returned to spring training in 1945, he appeared to be a different man, telling Durocher and Rickey that he no longer had the back pain that had limited his performance in prior years. But Durocher soon noticed that Gregg was using a cramped, shot-put-type delivery—probably out of fear of more injury—which greatly slowed down his fastball. He asked Gregg to loosen up and put everything he had into each pitch.
Gregg made his 1945 debut against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 19, allowing only two hits and just one earned run for a complete-game victory. With his overpowering fastball, he struck out seven Phillies. But he also struggled with control of his curve ball and walked six batters. It could have been worse but for Gregg’s catcher that day. Clyde Sukeforth, who had come out of retirement at the age of forty-three to play a few games behind the plate, deftly handled Gregg’s erratic pitches.
Sukeforth’s handling of Gregg led Durocher to assign the older man to be the wild man’s personal catcher. The two soon became a strong battery. Gregg’s wildness was diminishing with experience and Sukeforth’s coaching, and with greater control came more confidence, and more wins. By midseason, the twenty-three-year old had become one of the best pitchers in the National League. He did not get the chance, however, to pitch in an All-Star game.
Because of the war effort, the owners agreed to cancel the Midsummer Classic, and as a result, Major League Baseball did not name All-Stars for the 1945 season. A group of baseball writers from the Associated Press picked their own standouts based on nominations from the league’s managers. Hal Gregg was the consensus best starting pitcher in the National League.
From mid-July to early August, Gregg went on a five-game winning streak. On August 3 he held the Boston Braves hitless for seven innings, facing the minimum twenty-one batters. Although he lost the no-hitter in the eighth, he won the game, 5–1, allowing only an unearned run. Gregg followed with another strong performance on August 8, a complete-game 1–0 shutout of the Cincinnati Reds. It was his first career shutout, and the win improved his record to 15-6. Everyone in baseball—players, managers, writers—was taking notice. Hal Gregg had special talent. He had a bright future.
But Gregg slumped badly in the final two months of the season. He was 1-7 before finishing the season with two dominating wins against the last-place Phillies. Gregg had a final record of 18-13, and his 3.47 earned run average was two runs lower than his 1944 mark. He was still struggling with his control, leading the league with 120 walks and finishing second in wild pitches and hit batsmen.
After a strong start in 1946, Gregg pulled a muscle in his throwing arm on May 14, and the injury kept him out for six weeks. When he did pitch, Gregg was still a force, winning six games while losing four and posting a career-best 2.99 ERA against the strengthened postwar rosters.
On May 2, 1946 Gregg married Alice Wyatt, a twenty-one-year-old fashion model from Forest Hills, New York. The two were married at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon, New York. The couple had three sons, Harold, Jr., Gregory, and James. They remained married until Hal Gregg’s death forty-five years later.
By holding the Braves scoreless for two and a third innings, Gregg was the winning pitcher on April 15, 1947, the game in which Jackie Robinson made his historic debut. Gregg’s performance encouraged manager Burt Shotton to start him against the Phillies a week later. Gregg did not disappoint. He pitched a complete-game shutout in a 1–0 win, at one time retiring twenty consecutive batters. Gregg told reporters after the game that he never felt so confident in his whole life, but the rest of the season did not go as well as those early outings. Gregg made fifteen more starts. Although he was just 4-5 with a 5.87 ERA, Gregg pitched well down the stretch, and in doing so gained the confidence of his manager. When asked about Gregg’s late-season surge, Shotton said that Gregg could be the ace of the staff.
The 1947 World Series pitted the Dodgers against the New York Yankees. Gregg made his first Series appearance in the fifth inning of Game Two, allowing an inherited runner to score and surrendering another run in two innings of work.
In Game Four, Gregg relieved rookie starter Harry Taylor, who faced only four batters and left with his team down 1–0 and the bases loaded with nobody out. Gregg disposed of the threat and surrendered just one run over the next six innings. His performance held the Yankees at bay and helped set the stage for Cookie Lavagetto’s two-out, ninth-inning double that spoiled Floyd Bevens’s potential no-hitter and won the game for Brooklyn.
Gregg’s outstanding performance in Game Four prompted Shotton to name him his Game Seven starter. It was a surprise move for a pitcher who had split his time between starting and relief since midseason. But Gregg was not up to the task. His line for the game was three and two-thirds innings-pitched, three hits, three earned runs, four walks, and three strikeouts. The Yankees went on to win the game, with Gregg taking the loss.
On December 8, 1947 the Dodgers traded Gregg and pitcher Vic Lombardi to the Pittsburgh Pirates for third baseman Billy Cox, utility infielder Gene Mauch, and pitcher Preacher Roe. In a separate deal that day, the Dodgers sold Dixie Walker to the Pirates for the $10,000 waiver price.
Gregg’s time in Pittsburgh was marred by arm injuries and declining performance. After a disappointing 2-4 season in 1948, he shuttled back and forth between the Pirates and the minor leagues in 1949 and 1950. Disgusted and distraught, Gregg quit baseball after the 1950 season. His arm hurt, his bad back was now a chronic problem, and he had been on a steady decline for three years. He moved back home to Anaheim and began working full time at his orange-growing business.
Yet when the Pirates asked if he wanted a tryout at spring training in 1952, Gregg accepted the offer. He was the final man cut from the major-league roster. Once again, he retired. That is, until later that spring when Mel Ott, the manager of the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, paid Gregg a visit and persuaded him to give the game one more chance. A few days later, Gregg signed to pitch for Oakland. By the middle of June, he was 11-3. On June 13, 1952, the Durocher-managed New York Giants purchased Gregg’s contract from the Oaks for $35,000.
On June 17, 1952 in his first big-league game in more than two years, Gregg pitched admirably for six innings, holding the Pirates to one run on five hits. Things went awry in the seventh when he yielded a bases-loaded home run to Gus Bell and ended up the losing pitcher. In all, he appeared in sixteen games for the Giants, including his final one on August 17 against the Braves at the Polo Grounds. He returned in 1953 for one game with Oakland before retiring from baseball.
Hal went home to Anaheim, where he and Alice raised their three children and ran the orange business, as he had intended from his childhood days. On May 13, 1991, Hal Gregg died at the age of sixty-nine at his home in Bishop, California, where he had lived for the prior decade. Gregg, who was cremated, was survived by his wife and their three sons. His obituary in the local paper noted that few people in town even knew that he had been a major-league baseball player.
Harold C. Burr, “Introducing Hal Gregg,” New York World Telegram, March 30, 1944.
Harold C. Burr, “Gregg’s Back Okay, Ready to Load Cart,” Brooklyn Eagle, March 13, 1945.
Tim Cohane, “New Serious Attitude Aids Gregg,” New York World Telegram, September 14, 1945.
Arthur M. Daley, “Sports of the Times, Story of Frustration,” New York Times, June 20, 1952.
Daniel (Margowitz), “Gregg Most Impressive Pitcher in the National League,” New York World Telegram, August 9, 1945.
John Drebinger, “Yanks Win Series, Page Taking Final From Dodgers 5-2,” New York Times, October 7, 1947.
John Drebinger, “Brooklyn Obtains Three in Exchange,” New York Times, December 9, 1947.
Louis Effrat, “Rookie Pitchers Fail in Brooklyn,” New York Times, August 19, 1943.
Louis Effrat, “Gregg’s Two-Hitter Defeats Phils,” New York Times, April 20, 1945.
Herb Goren, “Gregg Becomes Big Factor in Dodgers World Series Plans,” New York Sun, September 18, 1947.
Roscoe McGowen, “Cubs’ 13 Safeties Rout Dodgers,” New York Times, August 22, 1943.
Roscoe McGowen, “Gregg Halts Phils for Brooklyn, 10-1,” New York Times, May 7, 1944.
Roscoe McGowen, “Dodgers Blank Pirates: Gregg Gives 3 hits in 7-0 Conquest,” New York Times, September 20, 1946.
Roscoe McGowen, “Double by Reiser Beats Boston, 5-3,” New York Times, April 16, 1947.
Edward T. Murphy, ”Kid Pitcher Amazes Dodgers,” New York Times, April 2, 1943.
Joseph M. Sheehan, “Giants Get Gregg, Oakland Star, in Move to Bolster Staff,” New York Times, June 14, 1952.
Joseph M. Sheehan, “Dodgers Bow 8-4, After 5-4 Triumph,” New York Times, August 14, 1952.
“Gregg Can Prove Ott a Prophet,” New York World Telegram and Sun, June 14, 1952.
“Gregg to Return Home for Spinal Treatment, New York World Telegram, July 5, 1944.
“Hal Gregg Gets License to Wed,” New York World Telegram, May 1, 1946.
“Major Leaguer Lived Out His Life in the Bishop Area,” Inyo Register, Bishop, California, May 17, 1991.
Obituary, Harold D. Gregg, Inyo Register, Bishop, California.
“Pirates Tout A New Terry,” New York World Telegram and Sun, March 23, 1950.